Defend Truth


You strike the unions, you strike the bedrock of workers


Dr Vashna Jagarnath is a director of both Pan Africa Today and Friends of the Workers. She is also Deputy General Secretary of the Socialists Revolutionary Workers' Party and Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Social Change at the University of Johannesburg.

If the unions in South Africa were to be crushed, and a full-blown neo-liberal programme implemented, the social costs would be devastating. This could, in turn, pose real risks for democracy.

The increasingly rabid anti-union frenzy gathering pace in our public sphere is seriously disturbing, dangerous, and often astonishingly ill-informed. Reading some commentators, one gets the impression that it is trade unions, and their support for a living wage and opposition to retrenchments, rather than the ruling party and capital that are responsible for our economic crisis, and the worrying condition of the state-owned enterprises.

Our economic crisis has various dimensions, but a central problem has been the ANC’s long-standing and dogmatic commitment, in the face of all available evidence, to conservative macroeconomic policies. The looting during the years of Jacob Zuma’s period in office and the capture of key institutions by a predatory network seriously compounded the economic crisis, as did the investment strike by capital.

Zuma sometimes masked his predatory politics in the language of radical nationalism. This has emboldened the right who now feel morally vindicated. In the Democratic Alliance, white revanchism is now openly pursued. In the broader public sphere, there is now a shrill chorus calling for the state to impose an austerity programme on public spending, privatise state-owned enterprises and break the remaining power of the unions.

This standard slew of neoliberal policies, in essence, a structural adjustment programme, is being pushed hardest by Finance Minister Tito Mboweni, but is clearly also supported by President Cyril Ramaphosa, whose lack of economic and political imagination is dire. Across the globe, structural adjustment (the name for neo-liberalism in the global South) and austerity (the name for neo-liberalism in the global North) programmes have had the same disastrous results. The rich have got richer, the working class have been plunged into crisis and the lives of the middle classes have become increasingly precarious.

Today, in South Africa, union demands for a living wage and opposition to retrenchments are being presented, sometimes in apocalyptic terms, as the cause of our problems and a grave threat to our future.

The public is made to forget that it is because of trade unions that we have the eight-hour workday and the weekend. It is because of trade unions that we have paid annual leave, terms and references of contract, paid parental leave, equal pay for women in the workplace and mechanisms for dealing with various other forms of discrimination that arise in the workplace.

It is the trade union that provides the worker with solidarity against the big multinational companies and takes on key issues affecting both individual workers and workers collectively. These gains don’t just benefit the unionised worker. They also benefit society at large. This is particularly so in South Africa, where large numbers of people are often dependent on a single paycheque.

A recent study that looked at 150 countries from 1900 to today, and which is described in some detail in The Washington Post, shows that industrial workers have been key agents of democratisation, and are often more important for sustaining and deepening democracy than the middle classes.

A number of right-wing commentators are presenting the strike currently underway at SAA as a decisive turning point for the country. For these commentators, it is imperative that the unions must be broken at SAA as a dress rehearsal for the big battle looming at Eskom. They take the view that if the unions can be broken at SAA, and then Eskom, the government will then be free to pursue a full neo-liberal programme of privatisation, retrenchments and austerity.

John Kane-Berman of the increasingly right-wing Institute of Race Relations has drawn an analogy with the miners’ strike in the United Kingdom in 1984. He details the strategies that Margaret Thatcher used to break that strike and calls for similar action to be taken against unions in the current South African conjuncture.

Others have drawn comparisons with the way that Ronald Reagan broke the air traffic controllers’ strike in the United States in 1981. In both cases, the breaking of a strike set up conditions for a long period of neoliberal hegemony. The result was devastation for the working classes, increasing precariousness for the middle classes and then, in the end, the disastrous vote in support of Brexit in 2016, and the equally disastrous vote for Donald Trump in the same year.

A recent study shows that in England, the wealth of the top 600 aristocratic families has doubled in the last decade. This is because the elites in general, and aristocrats in particular, prospered massively under Thatcher’s financial deregulation and economic liberalisation.

Reagan’s firing of over 12,000 workers in one go, on 3 August 1981, not only dramatically affected the lives of the affected workers, but was a calamity for the working class in general in the US and marked the beginning of the weakening of worker power and the working class in general. In 2011, on average less than 2% of workers staged walk-outs in the US and were willing to go on strike, severely decreasing the power of the working class.

It is important to note that the neo-liberal hegemony ushered in by Thatcher and Reagan wasn’t just an economic and social disaster for the working class in the UK and the US. It also caused such deep social crisis that democracy itself came to be threatened.

If the unions in South Africa were to be crushed, and a full-blown neo-liberal programme implemented, the social costs would be devastating. This could, in turn, pose real risks for democracy. Already a number of right-wing commentators are looking to Paul Kagame’s model of authoritarian capitalism in Rwanda as a way forward for South Africa.

SAA is promising to retrench 944 workers. In the current economic crisis, with mass unemployment, every worker facing retrenchment lives with the very real fear that they will not find another job. These 944 workers did not cause SAA’s problems but are now being presented as if they were, in fact, the cause of the crisis at the airline. The problems faced by the airline are a direct result of serious mismanagement by its top executives and the state over many years, a problem that became particularly acute during the Zuma years.

Adam Voss, the current CEO of SAA, draws an annual salary of R6-million. General managers earn R4-million. This is on the back of mass corruption and inflated and inexplicable outsourcing deals taken on by SAA as outlined in a recent report by Ernest & Young, which recommended that these external contracts needed to be urgently dealt with in order to reduce the high costs incurred by SAA. It is revealing that neither these kinds of hugely inflated salaries, nor dodgy external contracts, result in vilification in the media.

Numsa has recently noted that at “SAA Technical there was a contract with KWE which had inflated costs. The service was for warehousing which cost SAAT R22-million per annum. It was immediately cancelled and now SAAT is saving approximately R11-million per annum as a result of that decision. This was because of pressure from the unions.”

Furthermore, there have been repeated calls from the unions for the dismissal of board chairperson Thandeka Mgoduso, and the corrupt board, which has brought SAA to the brink of collapse twice in four years. These calls have fallen on deaf ears. Mgoduso was also caught up in a tender scandal with 21st Century Consulting. While this accusation was denied by 21st Century, the evidence for these claims arises from an internal report commissioned by the board of SAA’s chief risk and compliance officer, advocate Vusi Pikoli.

In a press statement released on 17 November 2019 Numsa argues that, “Mgoduso and her cronies have bloated the wage bill by creating managerial positions at SAAT which did not originally exist in the company structure. That is why we have filed an application at the South Gauteng High Court for her and the entire SAA Technical board to be declared delinquent.”

The unions represent workers who have a deep personal investment in the viability of the organisations for which they work. But instead of seeing workers as the people with the most to lose should an organisation collapse, they are constantly being misrepresented as a threat to the very organisations that sustain them and their families.

The people who looted SAA and Eskom must be held accountable. The people who enabled this looting, including many senior members of the ruling party, must also be held accountable. The blame for the disastrous management of our state-owned enterprises in recent years must not be laid at the feet of the workers, the people who have the most to lose should these organisations collapse.

Our state-owned enterprises need to be fixed, not sold off for a song. For anyone concerned with questions of justice, or even just a viable future for South Africa, now is the time for us to get behind the workers of SAA and Eskom. We need to oppose retrenchments, support struggles for a living wage, ensure justice for the looters, and build state-owned enterprises that can fulfil their social functions effectively. DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted